Visitors to Beaufort, North Carolina, know to set their sights to the outskirts of town. Ferries and boats traverse the well-worn waterways surrounding nearby Shackleford Banks, binoculars scanning the wild brush in search of the famous and mysterious Shackleford Ponies. The small, shaggy horses have inhabited the narrow strip of land just east of Beaufort for upwards of 400 years and are in integral part of local lore and culture. The pony-penning ritual, in which the Shackleford Ponies are rounded up, is as much a part of Beaufort history as Blackbeard. Recent decades have found locals fighting to keep the horses roaming free on the island, but even as the debate rages as to whether or not the ponies should remain on Shackleford Banks, the story as to how they got there remains a mystery. Theories abound and feature the stuff of tall tales, from shipwrecks to forgotten settlements.
The first flock of Shackleford Ponies likely made their way to the Banks with Spanish settlers via Hispaniola around the middle of the sixteenth century. When Columbus made his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he brought with him twenty-five mares from Spain (stallions, he theorized, would already be on their way with soldiers). Those twenty-five horses would form the foundation of generations of Shackleford Ponies. Settlers of Hispaniola continued to request the delivery of horses with shipments of supplies from Spain and began to establish ranches across Hispaniola to raise their imported nags. Their ranches were so successful over the next forty years, in fact, that Hispaniola ranchers began to import the best horses from Spain—so much so that Spain decided to place an embargo on the exportation of horses to their colonies. But history was made and the New World had its very own population of superior, Spanish mounts.
From 1520 to 1525, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon led a settlement of Spanish colonists from Hispaniola to the Outer Banks off present-day North Carolina’s coast. With him, de Ayllon brought a contingent of the Spanish horses reared on Hispaniola. A series of unfortunate events, including disease, poor leadership, and Indian hostilities, drove de Ayllon’s colonists off the islands within a matter of years (de Ayllon himself died from a local fever). In their desperate flee from the harsh islands, the would-be colonists abandoned many of their belongings and valuables—including their well-bred horses. Miraculously, the horses managed to survive where humans could not, and their descendants still inhabit Shackleford Banks today, a history verified by recent scientific DNA evidence.
There is, however, another story as to the arrival of ponies upon Shackleford. In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh ventured upon his second expedition to the Americas, bringing with him a boat full of supplies for colonists. In the final leg of his journey, as the pilot attempted to navigate the dangerous waters of the Outer Banks, the ship ran aground in an attempt to sail into a sound. Though it did not sink, it now sported a cavernous hole in its hull, and the sailors were forced to careen the ship, or roll it onto its side, in order to repair it. It’s likely that at this time, whether in an attempt to lighten the load or merely as a practical precaution, the ship’s livestock, including horses, was pushed overboard to roam the wilds of the Outer Banks.
Though other theories exist in regards to the origins of the Shackleford Ponies (so named for their location and small size), these two are founded in historical logs and well-noted events. Perhaps the horses thrown from the decks of Raleigh’s ship mingled with the ponies abandoned by de Ayllon’s settlers, united by their common abandonment by humanity. No matter their lineage or history, the Shackleford Ponies are an integral part of Beaufort culture. Debates surrounding the deportation of the ponies rages on, but for now the ponies will continue to call the Shackleford Banks home, without interruption from other horses or humans. Many stories speckle the South of souls inhabiting lands others found inhospitable, overcoming hardship, humidity, and hostilities—one of the best is the story of the Shackleford Ponies, who continue to thrive today as they have done for centuries.
See More Shackleford Ponies Photos